As explained in this post, the Starz Denver Film Festival is once again upon us, and I have been relating my experiences with the various films I see in daily reports and individual reviews. For all Starz Denver Film Festival 2014 coverage, please visit this link.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night is built around one of the most strikingly compelling pieces of moral ambiguity I have ever seen portrayed on film. Sandra Bya (Marion Cotillard), a married mother of two, learns on a Friday afternoon that she is to be laid off from the solar panel factory where she works. Her boss has decided that he can either keep employing Sandra, or give her coworkers a 1,000 euro bonus; at first, the majority of her coworkers are in favor of the bonus. But this is a job Sandra cannot afford to lose – she has only just brought her family back to the brink of financial stability, and faces a return to government subsistence if this paycheck evaporates – and so she appeals to her boss to change his mind. Instead, he agrees to hold a more formal vote on Monday morning, this time with a secret ballot, where her coworkers shall choose between keeping Sandra on the staff or gaining a substantial addition to their paychecks.
What would you do? At first blush, the answer seems obvious – it would be terrible to vote against another person’s employment, to willingly banish a colleague to poverty and desperation just to improve the quality of one’s own earnings. But over the eponymous two days Sandra spends going from coworker to coworker, imploring each of them individually to think of her situation and vote in favor of her job, any and all moral certitude grows less and less concrete. What if that bonus could keep you from working two jobs, or could pay for your child’s education? What if your job is already at such a low level that this bonus could be the difference between making end’s meet and constantly coming up short? If the vote were between your financial security and that of a coworker, would you be capable of being that compassionate? Could you?
There is something almost structuralist about the way Two Days, One Night is laid out. Sandra visits each coworker in turn, presenting each of them with the same scenario and request, and the film’s drama comes as much from observing the similarities and differences of each meeting as it does worrying over the outcome of Sandra’s quest. Some of her colleagues are kind and empathetic, but admit they must vote against her for personal need. Others are cold and uncaring, thinking only of their own situation and looking down upon Sandra for even asking. One is outwardly combative. Some, of course, are wholly sympathetic, and support Sandra’s cause wholeheartedly, including one man who bursts into tears after hearing her request, having been wracked with guilt after voting against her in the first poll. Watching this inherently repetitious story play out could so easily have been the height of tedium. Instead, it is riveting, a masterfully crafted and powerfully performed study into the ambiguity of what constitutes human decency, and what happens when the complications of reality intersect with emotion and morality.
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The Dardenne Brothers have, at this point, built one of the most respected bodies of work in contemporary world cinema, but I must admit that I never felt myself particularly moved by their work before now. I find films like La Promesse (1996) and L’Enfant (2005) to be emotionally manipulative at the expense of solid or identifiable narrative logic, with character actions that often make precious little sense, but Two Days, One Night is a different story. The premise is simple and immediate enough to resonate strongly with audiences the world over – the stress of financial uncertainty is about as universal a human issue as can be explored today – and the film earns its high and low emotional beats by reveling in the plot’s central ambiguity, rather than creating false drama through forced conflict or contrivance.
More importantly, the film has a legitimately great character creation at its core, one that opens the film up to a myriad of themes about the complexities of human emotion. Sandra isn’t just struggling to keep her job – she is also fighting against her own sanity and mood, having only just recovered from a serious battle with depression at the time the film begins. The boss’s decision to potentially replace Sandra with a bonus is directly precipitated by the leave Sandra had to take from the factory while ill – during the time she was away, it became clear that Sandra’s coworkers could do the job without her – and this horrible vote arrives just as Sandra is questioning whether or not she is truly strong enough to socially function. Her quest to gather enough votes is layered with the added tension of whether or not Sandra will break down from the stress. The pressure isn’t just external, but internal as well; Sandra needs to make it through this weekend, needs to get these people on her side, so that she can prove her own worth to herself. This weekend is her future in microcosm – if she cannot make it through this, can she hope to function on a day-to-day basis at work?
That self-imposed burden tears Sandra apart, and while the film is deeply empathetic of her situation and mental state, it also views her with a critical eye. The Dardenne Brothers are interested in the illogical and self-centered nature of depressive states; one of the film’s sharpest observations is how Sandra becomes less and less receptive to her family’s love and support the deeper she sinks into sadness and doubt. Her depression shuts her off to everything that could possibly pull her out of it, and the more unstable she becomes, the more inconsiderate she is towards those around her. It’s something anyone who has ever struggled with depressive states can attest to, and which the film paints an expert portrait of: When the outside world puts enough pressure on someone, it’s only natural to burrow inside oneself, no matter how isolated and destructive that path can be.
It is primarily to the credit of Marion Cotillard that the character – and, by extension, the film – is so compelling. Cotillard gives such a fantastic performance, one that is so completely lived-in and richly detailed, that the Dardenne Brothers have essentially built the film’s entire style and pace around her. Constructed from strikingly composed long takes that put Cotillard front and center, allowing us to observe the depth and power of her performance without interruption, Two Days, One Night is driven almost entirely by the brilliance of Cotillard’s work. This is the kind of performance that conveys as much in simple, repeated actions – Sandra popping Xanax at every opportunity, or drinking water with compulsive intensity – as it does in entire spoken exchanges, and the film is as gripping a showcase for an individual actor’s talent as any movie this year. Cotillard’s ability to command the screen is hardly a surprise at this point, of course, but to see a film that fully harnesses the sheer extent of her talent nevertheless feels like a revelation. This is a beautiful and intelligent film, with a passionate performance at its center, and in the ways it challenges and enlightens the viewer, Two Days, One Night is one of the year’s most compelling cinematic experiences.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.